When I moved to Las Vegas in 1981, the news of two kidnapped girls' bodies found chucked in the Vegas desert flooded our television. My mother regarded the incessant newscasts as premonitions. I was to be the next ten-year-old victim tragically abducted on her way home from school. To trick fate, she kept me sequestered in our apartment for almost a year—refusing to enroll me in fifth grade. We were both certain that if I walked out the door, I would never return.
The threat of abduction displaced my real fear that my mom would be taken away, snatched up by cops on a pending shoplifting charge she'd dodged in Los Angeles. It was more probable that she would be stolen from me than I from her, but since the TV informed us that child-napping was the most imminent threat, we believed it, finding it easier to distrust our own logic and let the media decide our worries for us.
Our flight to Vegas began months before our actual departure when my aunt Bashia came to stay with us from Poland so she could earn money for a car. Bashia based her expectations of America on what she had seen on the greatest circulator of propaganda, the television, imagining that everyone lived like the Carringtons on Dynasty. When she discovered that the walls of our dingy apartment in the heart of the Culver City Mexican ghetto were not covered in gold-leaf wallpaper, but rather the occasional cockroach, she was shocked. We had less than she did. But her greatest disappointment was learning that she, herself, had to earn her pay. Much like a bratty teenager, Barbara was under the assumption that my mother and my uncle, were going to throw cash that they didn't have at her simply because she graced them with her presence.
One aspect of American culture did live up to her expectations—consumerism. She was in awe of the rows of stores overflowing with merchandise. She'd never seen so many varieties of a single product in one place, entire stores devoted to sneakers or watches. Even if you had the money for an extravagant purchase in Poland, you could only choose from the one or two items that a black market smuggler had in stock—but never so much in one place, just sitting there, begging to be taken. She concluded that everything was free in America; you just took what you wanted. And so she did.
For six months she filled our home with stolen presents for her children and husband. My mother joined in, making our stay in America also a little more pleasant. Until one day, a Sears surveillance camera caught them stuffing Levis into their suspiciously large purses.
The moment we walked out of the store, three plain-clothes security guards pounced on my mother and Bashia. The officers forced my mother's arms behind her back. When she yelped in pain, protesting that the handcuffs were too tight, the security guard squeezed harder until he'd forced a metallic click. I saw the skin around her chubby wrists form rolls that folded upon themselves as her fingers turned a purplish-red.
After being escorted through the stark catacomb of Sears we were placed into a cement room with a dozen black-and-white televisions. The guard who'd hurt my mother reveled in showing us the video of Bashia looking over her shoulder as she filled her bag. Finishing the show by saying, "Gotcha. Ain't no way to wiggle out'a that one. That's five years minimum."
For the next seven hours I waited on a metal bench at the police station imagining the next five years without my mother. I would spend adolescence with my uncle, who although he loved me like I was his daughter, would be more lost than me without my mother. Since he was born, she took care of him, ironing his clothes, cutting his hair. At the age of 33, she still bought his underwear.